It’s an old joke but one that I found actually relevant to my circumstances. About a year ago I was offered a freelance writing assignment; Write short adult sex stories for a new website that the owner was intending to create. These stories were to be explicit and run anywhere from 5-10 pages in length. Well, I have been writing most of my life and that has always included some sex-stories (as a young man it was an incredibly freeing way to explore my own desires). I thought to myself, “How hard can this be. No plot, no character, just raunchy sex…and I get paid for it!”
Well, it was easy…at first. I have no limits when it comes to my imagination and I like sex so away I went. Trouble is the more of these I wrote, the more I wondered who the girl was or the guy and how had they gotten into this position(s)-no pun intended. I wanted to know what made people feel this way, about whatever fetish or desire I was writing about. So, my stories started getting longer. Where my sex scenes had usually been starting out before I was finished with the first page, soon it wasn’t for 3-4 pages before I got to the “good stuff”. I started exploring the characters feelings. I wanted to know what had happened in their lives previously or where they thought they might be going. And you know a funny thing happened as I evolved this way; my stories got better. More interesting. The sex even became more “honest” because I had insight as to why they were doing whatever they were doing.
Now, I won’t kid you, these were not Ernest Hemmingway or even Stephen King characters and I will never win any prizes for the sort of thing I was writing. What I have done however is become a better writer. I have gained an even greater understanding into the importance character plays in a story and I can…and do, translate these lessons into my own more mainstream fantasy writing.
Let’s face it, sex is sex. It’s been around for millions of years and there is nothing truly new about it. The same can be said about storylines in almost every book you read today. So really, what is it that makes a new story something the reader will hang onto and refuse to put down? It’s the emotions of the book and those emotions come from the characters.
We have all read a book that from the cover or the inside leaf sounded fabulous and intriguing, yet when we started reading we were bored and quickly put it aside. Was it a bad idea? A trite plot? No, it was the fact that we didn’t care what was happening or to whom it was happening. We need characters because they make us root, or hiss for them and more importantly, we see aspects of ourselves in them that we can believe. Through that, sometimes, comes greater understanding of ourselves, or the author, or someone we know. And even if we are not learning any deeper meaning about ourselves, we are enjoying the lessons that the characters are learning.
The other thing that happened as I wrote more and more of these stories is that I became a better editor. My own stories would sometimes get too character-centric and I would almost forget about the sex-parts. Or my employer would send me a story they had written and say “tighten this up for me, will you?”
A benefit of my own writing, of my first novel-not yet published-was that I had recently hired an editor to go over my entire manuscript. I had been reading and revising and taking to heart the edits they had made (and sometimes shouting at them, “No no! I want it that way”.)
But as I worked on my employers’ stories and revised my own work I started to see the same errors and problems that my editor had told to me. I started to understand more and more why an edit was suggested and how to make a scene better.
So, as it happens, SEX did get my attention and in the long run, I became a better writer for it.